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A Cautionary Moroccan Tale

Way back in the mists of time my brother and I decided to visit the North African kingdom of Morocco knowing nothing about the place other than it was in Africa and so must be cheap; it was home to Europe’s main ganja supply (this is in the days before the homegrown skunk revolution) and had impressive mountains to hike in (the Atlas range).

Rif Mountains

Rif Mountains

We secured last minute cheap one way air tickets from Heathrow to Tangiers. On the plane we met up with another young Brit (who shall be called ‘P’) He was also an African virgin and since he shared his duty free booze with us we duly let him tag along. We arrived late at night at Tangiers airport and rather than deal with taxi drivers and the inevitably overpriced hotel rooms they would steer us towards we decided to walk 100 metres beyond the airport taxi rank and find a hedge to sleep under. Funnily enough we were not the only ones with this idea. We ended up sharing our hedged enclosure with an Aussie couple who had the foresight to bring a tent which they speedily erected for the night.

The next morning we caught the bus into the bustling port city of Tangiers made famous by that wrongly named movie, “Casablanca” and the American writer Paul Bowles. Joe Strummer must be a harder man than me for one hour in Tangiers’s infamous “Kasbah” was enough for me. It’s a warren of narrow alleys full of small shops and bottom feeders ready to prey on lost tourists. “Picturesque” was entirely the wrong word to describe the place. More appropriate phrases were “eye-opening” and “damn right scary” or so it seemed through the eyes of three 20 somethings from the ordered avenues of middle England.

The Place of the Dead

Djemaa el Fna – The Place of the Dead

At this point I should take a moment to describe the general character of the Moroccan male. It is a type so disturbing to tourists that the king has passed several ineffectual edicts prohibiting Moroccans from accosting foreign visitors to his kingdom. What can be so bad I hear you ask? Well it was (and probably still is) a combination of natural intelligence, a propensity to earn an easy buck and an impressive arsenal of well tested cons. We spent two months in Morocco and every day local males would sidle up to us speaking impressively idiomatic English and insist they wanted nothing more than to help us avoid the many difficulties and pit falls that await naïve infidels. Coming from a culture where kindness to strangers is often taken at face value we were easy to deceive. We were relieved of our Dirhams with pitiful ease on several occasions before the realization struck us that nearly everyone who could speak English was untrustworthy and on the make. And the following tale is just one example of how we were duped.

Wanting to escape the overwhelming hustle and hassle of Tangiers the three of us applied ourselves to studying our LPs and we quickly formulated a plan to escape the urban nightmare of Tangiers. So early the next morning we got to the bus station and felt jolly pleased with ourselves when we managed to avoid the touts by finding the right counter to buy bus tickets to the small coastal town of Larache. The self-congratulatory mood was soon pierced by the bus driver’s insistence that our tickets only covered our transport and not our backpacks. They would be another 10 Dirham each. Swallowing our pride and getting our wallets out we paid the surcharge (obviously all the chickens and cloth bundles being loaded on the roof seemed to be exempt the extra fee).

Despite the small con we were happy to finally be on our way. The roads were surprisingly good, unlike the rickety bus and the journey was enlivened by the frequent stops the bus made to pay off traffic police who seemed to appear on the highway every 10 or 15 kilometres. By late afternoon we arrived in the sleepy seaside town and after a brief haggle we secured a room with double bed and mattress on the floor for a few quid a night. We strolled around the town and were charmed by the children shouting “ola” to us (the Spanish colonial influence was still very much in evidence then). Our guards were slowly lowering and we voiced the opinion that perhaps the devious nature of Moroccans that we had hitherto encountered was an aberration of the big city and that these simple town folk were more down with traditional Muslim hospitality (it says in the Koran that it is every Muslim’s duty to help travellers that cross their path).

University in Fez

University in Fez

Once we were settled, our next task was to buy some of Morocco’s legendary weed. And as if by magic there was a knock on our door and a polite local who introduced himself as “Spider” offered his services to us. In no time at all he returned with an ounce of incredibly potent hash and charged us a most reasonable sum. He even invited us to join him for a cup of coffee on the nearby plaza. Feeling ashamed about our previous negative opinions of the country we accepted the invitation with alacrity.

We sat in the corner of the restaurant and enjoyed Spider’s suave conversation and sneakily rolled joints. It was a busy café and nobody seemed to take much notice of our presence, even though we were the only foreigners in the place. It was then that we received the shock of our lives. A policeman walked directly over to our table with a stern look on his face. A joint was on the go and a huge amount was stashed in our room. Suddenly vistas of a youth lost to a stifling and inhumane African prison seared their images on my mind. I felt paralysed with fear. However, to our immense relief the policeman spoke a few curt words to Spider and they both left. The copper had ignored us. We were on tenterhooks as to what to do next. Should we make a dash for it? At that point Spider returned and seeing our worried looks reassured us that the officer just wanted to buy some blow. Having expended a month’s worth of adrenalin in a mere five minutes we soon made our apologies and headed back to our room. Getting stoned didn’t help, as it only fueled our paranoia about the huge lump in our possession and the fact that Spider knew where we were staying.

Nothing further nightmarish happened that night and so we greeted the next day with renewed optimism that we were safe. We decided to spend the day at the beach to relax our jangled nerves. The beach was clean and the sand fine and the water warm. On turning in that night P. announced his desire to try the famous hash confectionary known as ‘majoun’. My brother and I thought nothing more about it until the following morning when we met P. He had woken early and gone out to explore. He told us about his meeting with a nice man called ‘Hammed’ who had invited us to his house to enjoy the legendary ‘majoun’. My brother and I looked at each other and shrugged. Why not?

So that afternoon we met Hammed on the plaza and he led us through the usual un-mapable maze of alleys to his home. He had already purchased 10 or so long branches of dried ganja and asked us for a 100 Dirham as a contribution for the ingredients to make the sweet hash paste. Between three it seemed not expensive; and besides Hammed didn’t strike us as a young beggarly type. His house was big and beautifully furnished in traditional Moroccan style with thick cushions, low tables and expensive rugs. We sipped mint tea as Hammed busied himself with chopping up the gear into a fine powder and mixing it with a gooey substance. It seemed so natural and insignificant that when he had completed the procedure he announced that it needed refrigeration. So he took it away to the kitchen and came back with cokes for us. We made a joint and made small talk with Hammed until we thought it a polite point to bid our farewells. Hammed rushed out of the living room and came back with the majoun in a small earthen ware container. Here was the fabled hospitality of Moorish Africa and we couldn’t wait to get back to our roof top garret to try the mind enhancing concoction that we had observed being lovingly made.

Like a true gent Hammed insisted on escorting us back to our room. Heaven forbid we get lost or run into any despicable characters on route. On the way he invited us on a fishing trip for the following day on his boat. He seemed a bit perturbed that he mightn’t arrive at the designated hour because he had lost his watch. P. instantly offered Hammed the loan of his wristwatch. And so after the usual formalities of bidding Hammed goodnight we retired to our room full of expectations that we would soon be having great visions of palaces and fountains over flowing with wine and buxom maids fawning over us.

Two hours later we realized that we had been conned. No palaces or wine or bosomy figures played before our inner eyes and we had been had to the tune of a 100 Dirham and a watch. What egregious behaviour from the smooth talking Hammed! We couldn’t help but chuckle to ourselves over the elaborate scheme Hammed had concocted to deprive us of 30 pounds and a watch. It’s a type of evil genius that while despicable shows an admirable ability to play the part; and the final proof of his outstanding performance was P’s instant offer to give the man his watch without him even having to ask.

It naturally goes without saying that Hammed didn’t keep his appointment for the following day and despite wondering around back alleys for an hour we failed to locate his house. It also goes without saying that there are millions of men called Hammed in that part of the world; and when we ran into Spider and told him of our misfortunes he just shrugged in that fatalist way they have and said Masha’allah (it’s God’s will) and invited us to dinner at his house. We reluctantly accepted and must have seemed very offish as we looked askew at his request for funds to buy fish and bread.

That night we broke bread with Spider and his fisherman mate in his very small and dingy room; and when we paused in our repast the half full pot of fish stew was whisked away to feed the women and children in the adjoining room. Oh well, such is God’s will.

Tannery in Fez

Tannery in Fez